Mothers’ Day – did you know…

19th-century abolitionist progressive Julia Ward Howe, founder of Mothers' Day

Maybe I’m weird, but I always thought the Howes of 19th century Boston were the coolest family – the mother, father, and daughter.  Julia and Samuel were tireless progressive activists, and Samuel spent most of his time working with the blind, creating America’s first Braille institute.  But their greatest passion was abolitionism – doing whatever they could to end slavery in the US.  Julia is remembered most for writing the words to the classic anti-slavery anthem The Battle Hymn of the Republic:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword…

When the great War Between the States was over, Julia’s pre-occupation became pacifism.   Pacifism and women’s suffrage.  She was the prime mover behind starting the Mothers’ Day we celebrate every year, which was always intended as an anti-war observance. You may or may not have heard her 1870 “Mothers’ Day Proclamation” she wrote for the occasion, a clarion call to end all wars; here’s just the beginning of it:

Arise then…women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
“We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.” (there’s more)

So far, you may be all, OK this is wholesome but boring. What I love is that their daughter Laura Elizabeth Richards grew up to write really weird freaky poems that were my favorite when I was a kid (along with Alice in Wonderland.) She called them “nonsense verse” and collected them in a volume called “Tirra Lirra” that is now out of print. People my age and older may remember poems like “Eletelephony” and “The Poor Unfortunate Hottentot.” I think the reason the book has fallen out of usage and out of print may be because some of the poems and the goofy illustrations are so politically incorrect to modern eyes. She was obsessed with distant lands and other races, and to me sometimes sounds like Rudyard Kipling on acid.

Over the years I’ve set eight of her poems to music for children’s choir and piano, which I call “Tirra Lirra Suite.” I wish I could put a sound file of them up here for you, we’ll get that figured out some day. Maybe next Mothers’ Day. For now, a couple of her more famous poems which inspired me to write beautiful melodies. that have been sung by many childrens’ choirs…

Laura E. Richards, mad genius of 'Tirra Lirra' and Vern's muse


Once there was an elephant / who tried to use the telephant
No no! I mean an elephone / who tried to use the telephone…
Dear me! I am not certain quite / that even now I’m saying it right.
Anyway he got his trunk / entangled in the telephunk.
The more he tried to break it free / the louder rang the telephee…
I think I’d better just drop this song / of elephop and telephong.

Harriet Hutch

Harriet Hutch,
her conduct was such,
her uncle remarked it would conquer the Dutch.
She boiled her new bonnet,
and she breakfasted on it,
then she rode to the moon on her grandmother’s crutch.

Nicholas Ned

Nicholas Ned,
he lost his head,
and he put a turnip on instead.
But then ah me!
he could not see,
so he thought it was night and he went to bed.

And that’s all I have to say tonight, about the Ward/Howes of 19th century Boston.  Happy Mothers’ Day!

About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official troubador of both Anaheim and Huntington Beach (the two ends of the Santa Ana Aquifer.) Performs regularly both solo, and with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at, or 714-235-VERN.